CHESAPEAKE CITY — Growing up in the Bronx borough of New York City in the 1970s, Lisa Mitchell said her neighborhood was one where people from different cultures and backgrounds could mix and mingle with ease.

Mitchell was the keynote speaker at the Cecil County Branch NAACP’s 57th Annual Freedom Fund Banquet at Schaefer’s Canal House restaurant in Chesapeake City on Nov. 2. She told the audience that it was normal for her to find herself eating arroz con pollo, or chicken with rice, on one neighbor’s porch one evening and eating lasagna on another neighbor’s porch another night.

“While we were all different, we treated each other with respect like a family,” she said. “We were united as a community despite our differences and our different backgrounds.”

Emphasizing the theme of the banquet, “When we unite, we win,” Mitchell stressed the importance of finding power through unity.

“If you look within the word ‘unite,’ you will find the word ‘unit,’” she said. “If we can function as a unit, it brings strength to everything that we do.”

But Mitchell was also cognizant that unity is not always a given. Coming from that multicultural neighborhood, Mitchell went on to study at the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music in Ohio on a vocal music scholarship, where she found herself being one of only a handful of black students.

“Never have I ever felt so many eyes on me, making me feel like I was different,” she said.

Standing out due to her race at an institution with a predominantly white population, Mitchell said she felt the need to prove herself even more. When her peers heard her sing and recognized her as a musician, Mitchell said those same interests built a sense of commonality.

From that point, however, she still wanted to open up a conversation about race and division.

“What they didn’t understand was that until we began having conversations, I was wounded because I was wounded by the exclusion,” she said. “I wasn’t included.”

Mitchell encouraged the banquet attendees to start similar conversations and create change.

“I come before you today this evening with the intent to ignite a flame deep within you, a flame that will empower you to be the difference in your community and throughout your day-to-day life,” she said.

Mitchell is now the Vice President of Human Resources for Aberdeen Proving Ground Federal Credit Union.

According to Mitchell, APGFCU leads with several principles, such as openness, empowerment, independence, personal growth, cooperation and community involvement, which she said are representative of the larger Civil Rights Movement.

Just as Mitchell used music to bridge gaps between her and her peers at the music conservatory, she said the federal credit union is pushing toward greater diversity and inclusion.

“When we made a connection through music, perceptions changed, barriers came down and doors opened,” she said. “At APGFCU, we’re a group of people helping people both at the workplace and outside of the workplace. We take action towards achieving a more diverse workforce for the range of knowledge and expertise that it brings and we extend the expectation of inclusion principles to the partners with whom we do business.”

Banquet attendees were also entertained by musical performances by Restored Praise and Worship Ministry from the Restoration Tabernacle in Perryville.

The local NAACP presented K. Nicole Sudler, a teacher at Elkton High School, with the 2019 C. Laney M. Hoxter Education Visionary Leadership Award.

Before this year, the award was simply titled the Education Visionary Leadership Award. But Cecil County Branch NAACP President Evangelist Elyse L. Murray said the award was renamed to honor the late C. Laney M. Hoxter, who served as the director of multicultural students services at Cecil College until she passed away unexpectedly in January.

Murray said she considered Hoxter as one of her sisters, and that the loss of her friend hurt her deeply.

“Sometimes God does things just to shake you up, and I’m going to tell you that shook me up,” she said. “I’m still shaking to this day at the loss of her … She’s there looking down on us.”

Hoxter, who served as the local NAACP chapter’s education chair, was credited for convincing Murray to take on the role of chapter president.

“She convinced me to run for president. I told her she was crazy,” Murray said. “Her favorite line was ‘You can do it.’”

Recent Cecil County Public Schools graduates, including Emma Klepitch, Lea Termine and Matthew Stacy, were honored with the 2019 Laurabelle Hope Education Award. That award is named after Laurabelle Elizabeth Loper Hope, who was a founding member and the secretary for the Cecil County NAACP in 1962. Hope currently lives in Newark, Del., with her husband, James.

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